Americans supporting immigrant rights.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at New York’s Grand Central Station on 29 August 2019 to denounce the Trump administration’s immigrant detention and deportation policies.

(Photo: Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Why Democrats Should Embrace Immigration

Immigration is overwhelmingly beneficial and arguably part of the bedrock that the U.S. was founded on.

If you were a politician, and you wanted to persuade the American people to support a particular set of policies, wouldn’t you want to advocate for a set of policies that will benefit the economy, create jobs, enrich the U.S. culturally and linguistically, subsidize social programs, help improve the U.S. birth rate, improve U.S. soft power, enhance human rights by helping people in need, and reunite families?

You would think that any type of policy that could achieve this many benefits would be an easy sell, and any politician running on a policy platform with these benefits would be very successful. The set of policies that achieve these benefits is a more liberalized immigration regime, i.e., creating more pathways for people to legally immigrate to the U.S.

In spite of these numerous benefits, Democrats never seem to fully embrace immigration. Republicans consistently run on an anti-immigrant platform that demonizes immigrants and immigration as bad for America, even though this is demonstrably false. In the face of this rabid anti-immigrant xenophobia, the Democrats typically counter by saying the Republican policies are cruel, but they do not give a clear endorsement for immigration itself and often end up supporting anti-immigrant policies. Why don’t the Democrats embrace immigration, given that it is overwhelmingly beneficial and arguably part of the bedrock that the U.S. was founded on?

The Benefits of Immigration Are Clear

Republicans are extremely proficient at flooding the zone with false notions that immigration is somehow bad for the U.S. and that immigrants are somehow dangerous, when the exact opposite is true. For example, numerous studies have demonstrated repeatedly that immigrants help create jobs and improve the economy overall (sources: one, two, three, four, five, and six). The data is also clear that immigrants (both documented and undocumented) have a lower crime rate than the native-born U.S. population (sources: one and two); they pay taxes (source) unlike many conservatives who feel that taxation is a form of theft; they pay into programs like Social Security and often do not receive benefits for them, which increases the solvency of those programs (source); they increase U.S. soft power, which is defined as nonmilitary resources that help advance U.S. interests (source); they bring high levels of talent and innovation from around the world and increase U.S. competitiveness (source); they help keep the U.S. birth rate stable (source); and many other intangible benefits.

There really is no good faith debate that can be had about the benefits of immigration because the data consistently shows that immigration is beneficial.

Opponents of immigration tend to make arguments such as, “Immigrants are dangerous,” “Immigrants take jobs,” or “Immigrants are a drain on resources.” All of these arguments are countered by the data cited above. Indeed, the anti-immigration and anti-immigrant argument does not have a leg to stand on because there is no factual basis for it. There really is no good faith debate that can be had about the benefits of immigration because the data consistently shows that immigration is beneficial. Given the clear and well established positive effects that immigration has, why don’t the Democrats embrace immigration as an issue and use it against the Republicans?

Immigration Exposes the Flaws in Democratic Political Strategy

Democratic trepidation toward strongly and clearly advocating for immigration, as well as less demonization of undocumented immigrants, points to larger issues with their overall political strategy.

Democratic politicians tend to watch the polls and base their policies off of the polling instead of having a core set of policies and persuading the public to support them, thus propelling them to electoral victory. Public opinion polling on immigration matters in the U.S. is mixed and highly dependent on the exact question that is asked. On the one hand, polling typically shows that most Americans think we are a nation of immigrants, that legal immigration is generally good, and even that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients should receive a “pathway to citizenship,” which is politician speak for allowing them to apply for green cards since green card recipients can generally apply for naturalization (U.S. citizenship) after five years.

Conversely, polls also show that more Americans are “concerned” about immigration recently. One poll even shows that a higher percentage of adults think the U.S. is “worse off” because of immigration, and one infamous poll from NPR/Ipsos found in 2022 that more than half of Americans either think that it is “completely true” or “somewhat true” that the U.S. is experiencing an invasion at the southern border (sources: one, two, three, four, and five). I think it’s also important to note that immigration tends to be a low priority voting issue, but, anecdotally, it appears to be a big motivator for the Republican base.

Biden could literally seal the entire border, and the right-wing media machine would continue to churn out propaganda saying that Joe Biden supports “open borders.”

Because the polling is so mixed, Democrats try to have it both ways. They try to at least pay lip service to the positive benefits of immigration, but they also repeat the conservative narratives about border security, asylum, “waiting your turn in line,” and other key GOP talking points. President Joe Biden is emblematic of this kind of thinking. In the 2020 campaign, he ran against Donald Trump’s extreme immigration policies, but when he got into office, he left many in place or even expanded them. For example, he has effectively ended the asylum process at the southern border, while simultaneously expanding the use of humanitarian parole. He ended Trump’s illegal border wall, but he advocates for more funding for “border security,” including fencing, walls, and other barriers.

Democrats think that if they behave this way, their base will support them, and that they will somehow be able to inoculate themselves from right-wing criticisms. Instead, the opposite is true. Mixed messaging and mixed policy moves only serve to lower the enthusiasm of the Democratic base, which polls show is pro-immigration. On the other hand, conservatives will never give any Democrat credit, even when the Democrat is enacting the very same policies that Republicans support. Biden could literally seal the entire border, and the right-wing media machine would continue to churn out propaganda saying that Joe Biden supports “open borders.”

Instead of trying to have it both ways, Democrats should embrace immigration and flip this issue into a clear winner for themselves. They should be clear that a functional legal immigration system is a priority for the U.S. and that it has all of the benefits that I outlined above. When Republicans say we need to tighten our immigration policies, Democrats need to push back and go on the offensive. For example, they should say things like, “Immigration creates jobs, so why do you want to hurt the economy by lowering immigration?” “Immigrants have a lower crime rate than U.S. citizens, so why are you trying to smear immigrants as invading criminals?” or “Immigration leads to family unification and helps people escape desperate situations, so why do you want to keep families apart and turn people away who need help?”

The conservatives would naturally counter with their tired, fact-free arguments, but that is where Democrats need to hammer them with the facts and counter their narrative. If Democrats don’t counter the Republican narratives, the American people begin to believe the Republican narratives. That is why so many Americans simultaneously believe that immigration is good while believing immigrants are dangerous or that there is an invasion at the southern border. People will believe the Republican propaganda, no matter how false it is, if there is no progressive narrative to counter it.

When Democrats adopt the Republican narrative, or allow it to flourish, they lose.

Instead of watching the polls and basing their policies off of what they think is popular now, Democrats should develop a core set of policy beliefs, then seek to move popular opinion in their favor through clear and consistent advocacy. When they do so, they change the narrative on immigration in their favor and create a winning issue out of an issue that may not have helped them much previously. The Democratic leadership always seems to forget that opinion is fluid and can change. Democrats need to ask themselves what policies are best for America, then try to advocate for them and move the needle of public opinion in their favor. When Democrats adopt the Republican narrative, or allow it to flourish, they lose. The result is low enthusiasm from their base and little to no increased support from the Republicans.

Democrats don’t see immigration as a winning issue, or rather, they are worried that if they go too far “left” then they will lose. I am not sure what it is going to take for the Democratic leadership to abandon this mindset. It is keeping them from making a winning issue out of a set of policies that will greatly benefit America and help people in need.

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